For Sunday, December 18th, 2022
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from Joseph’s point of view. The story begins at Mary and Joseph’s betrothal. It is important to understand the historical context for this since a betrothal is similar but different to a modern-day engagement. On the one hand, betrothals were promises of marriage similar to engagements. But on the other hand, betrothals were legally binding and could only be terminated by someone’s death or by obtaining a divorce certificate (see Deuteronomy 24:1–4).
Joseph is described as “a righteous man.” When he discovered that his betrothed was with child before their wedding day, he resolved “to divorce her quietly.” There are three possible explanations for his decision to divorce Mary. Firstly, Joseph could have been suspicious that Mary was ungodly and had been cheating on him with another man (think of American tabloid talk shows that shout: “You are not the father!”). Secondly, Joseph could have been perplexed because he knew that Mary was a holy woman of God who would not commit adultery. But she was pregnant with child and it is not his, so the only option would seem to be a quiet divorce. Thirdly, Joseph could have been made aware that Mary was miraculously pregnant with a child by “the Holy Spirit;” and he would decide to divorce her quietly since he did not understand his part in God’s plan and felt that he was unworthy. Whatever the case may have been, it is clear that Joseph didn’t want to cause Mary any difficulties. But can you imagine what must have been going on in his heart?
In the end, Joseph became privy to God’s plan when an angel told him exactly what was going on in a dream. Perhaps this detail will remind us of another famous Joseph who understood dreams.1 This entire account is meant to communicate three vital truths. Firstly, Jesus is a descendent of King David since Joseph is his legal guardian. Secondly, Mary’s virgin birth is the fulfillment of the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah. The angel even quotes the verse explicitly, saying, “Behold, [the] virgin shall conceive and bear a son”(Isaiah 7:14). Thirdly, Joseph is not Jesus’s birth father. Rather, Jesus is the Son of God and is the fulfillment of the same prophecy: “[A]nd [they] shall call his name Immanu-el [which means ‘God is with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14).
When reflecting on the supernatural origin of Jesus, it is easy to be in awe of God’s goodness. Without Jesus, we could not be saved from our sins. Yet it may also be easy to overlook Joseph, who heard the angel’s message and then “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” Today, pray for the grace to be a man like St. Joseph, the righteous man, the man who listened and obeyed the Lord’s direction.
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1 In fact, there are many similarities between the two important figures, including their name, Joseph (Genesis 30:24), their fathers’ name, Jacob (30:19–24), their commitment to chastity (39:7–18), and their relationship with God, since he specifically communicated to them through dreams (37:5–11).
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